It first began to bother me when friends of mine from Delhi started using the word “kolaveri” with the right pronunciation and in the right context.
The reason was not that Tamil had suddenly become fashionable, but Dhanush – that archetype of all things South Indian, with his swarthy skin, skeletal frame, thin moustache, and stilted accent – had suddenly gained currency beyond the Vindhyas; he was marketable in Bollywood thanks to a three-minute-long song not too different from any nonsense boys in Tamil Nadu colleges have been coming up with for decades. Soon, he played the lead in two Hindi films, and Bollywood stars were dancing to his out-of-tune voice.
Last year, a group of saree-clad women thumping up and down some sort of terrace and clapping their hands every few seconds to the Malayalam song Jimmiki Kammal began to notch up the numbers. The dance was unremarkable; the song was unremarkable; the women were unremarkable. What could explain its popularity, so much higher than the original film version?
A couple of months ago, the short film Lakshmi, the crux of which is a lower middle-class woman engaging in a one-night stand with a stranger who rides the same train she does, hit more than a million views within days of being uploaded. At the time of writing this piece, the film has seven million views.
Branded “controversial” and “feminist” in turns, by its detractors and cheerleaders respectively, the film has generated buzz which has in turn driven views. The story is this: a woman whose life is painfully mundane – get food ready for husband and child, send child to school, see off husband, bathe, get to work, come home, change into nightie, cook, have unsatisfying sex with husband, wake up, get food ready for husband and child... – breaks out of her cycle when a stranger on a train seduces her with the poetry of Subramania Bharathiyaar, who could not have envisioned that his radical poems would be used as pickup lines on desperate housewives. Driven by the discovery of her husband’s extramarital affair, the stranger’s offer to cook her a meal, and a public transport strike, the woman goes home with a man whose only street cred is that he has been eyeing her consistently on the train. Her decision is highlighted by the film switching from black and white to colour. In the real world, she would have been “relieved of her gold chain” or held for ransom or raped or murdered or all of the above. In the world of the vapid viral, she is given a crash course in poetry, turned from behenji to belle, presumably introduced to her first orgasms, and sent home. Why are people so obsessed with eighteen minutes of cliché followed by cliché, an Aesop’s-fable-meets-Shashi-Deshpande story?
But arguably most bewildering of all that went viral in the recent past was the wink by actress Priya Varrier. In a song from the upcoming Malayalam film Oru Adaar Love, a schoolboy and schoolgirl make eyes at each other. He wiggles his eyebrows. She wiggles hers. He smiles. She winks. He cannot get over it. Neither can YouTube. And nor can those of us who are astounded by its virality.
What is it which makes something go viral, when there is so much else, similar and superior, to be seen online?
Technology websites and mainstream media outlets have been trying to figure it out for the longest time. The New Yorker compiled a story on “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You” in 2014, in which they interviewed professors who were doing research into what made things go viral, and even examined Aristotle’s preoccupations with what made a speech memorable – the Ancient Greek version of “viral”. Visual Capitalist looked at the “Science of Making Things Go Viral” more recently, striving to break down the inexplicable into logic.
Sometimes, we find answers that satisfy us. For instance, why is “the world’s cutest dog” always a Pomeranian named Boo? The Atlantic, in a sinisterly-titled piece, told the “the unsettling truth about the world’s most adorable dog” – his human mother worked for Facebook, and had previously worked for Yahoo and PayPal.
At other times, we examine the content for various crucial factors – like Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos, and come up empty. We measure the content against its timing and sex appeal.
But then, there are the subversives, who laugh at all the research and say virality is all about stunts.
Take Oobah Butler, a freelance writer who made his nonexistent restaurant, The Shed at Dulwich, the No. 1 eatery in London on TripAdvisor from its original listing at No. 18,190 in under seven months. In an interview, he spoke about how his first job involved getting paid to write fake complimentary reviews for restaurants, and made him think about whether he could fake a whole restaurant. His shed, cleaning props, and a website were all he needed. The restaurant was virtually real. It was impossible to get a table. It was by appointment only. And his friends and family raved about it on TripAdvisor until people began to apply for jobs there and so many prospective diners were calling that he decided to open it for one night only. He served instant food from the supermarket, which cost him under a pound a plate, garnished it with edible flowers and herbs, and realised he could charge a king’s ransom for it and still have people come back for more. In the YouTube video which details his experiment, he made a horrifying pronouncement: “People don’t trust their senses above what they read online anymore.”
James Shamsi, a 23-year-old Briton based in Los Angeles, claims to have driven more than 900 million views on Facebook without paying the social network a penny. While he writes that he cannot disclose several of his projects and clients, the campaigns for which he has taken responsibility are telling. His strategy is a “hustle”. His mantra is “be cheap and lazy”.
In his early days, he used timing and content as crucial factors – students, for instance, were more likely to be looking for distractions and therefore more likely to be spending time on their phones, during exam time. They were looking for short, funny videos. But then, this could not be a foolproof strategy. And so he came up with “hacks” – his team, he says, has broken the algorithm for growth on Facebook and Instagram, outwitting the networks by predicting their moves.
And then he came up with a counter-intuitive strategy – he organised a march against himself for a campaign which involved planting currency bills in sex toys. He wrote to Christian groups and Christian media outlets, pretending to be a concerned citizen who wanted the perversity stopped and punished. One group sent out an email to more than a hundred thousand followers, and a campaign against an unpublicised stunt became its publicity vehicle.
For a long time, I thought Padmavati might be using this strategy – have oneself persecuted, and then seek support over being persecuted.
And the strategy helps explain the virality of several campaigns.
Sony plugged Kolaveri Di as a “leak” on its channel. It trusted – and was proven to be correct – that people were stupid enough to believe a video shot almost artistically, with several cameras and professional sound engineering, was amateur footage which happened to be leaked on its official channel.
In the case of Lakshmi, which as discussed ticks none of Aristotle’s boxes, there was “eros” – a sex scene which involved no nudity, but so crassly depicted it felt superfluous; and the idea of a wife-and-mother having extramarital sex. Most people first heard of the film because it was “controversial”. It was also released on filmmaker Gautham Vasudev Menon’s YouTube channel. No one knows when or by whom the first stone was thrown, but as soon as its crew began to complain about the hate it had received, and the “sexist” comments, everyone who was keen to fly the liberal flag took up the torch for it. Websites which had earlier slammed a scene dubbed “the rape of Avathika” from Baahubali now had words of praise for a short which has a very nearly identical scene – a woman with no agency and little desire is tempted into sex by a man who undoes her plait and awakens her libido.
The Jimmiki Kammal video went up around Onam, to clickbait headlines like, “This video of women rocking in sarees is the only thing you need to see today” and “This video will make your Onam”. It also had a little help from Jimmy Kimmel, who was tagged in a tweet of the video, and responded to it.
Priya Varrier’s wink went viral around Valentine’s Day.
The sad truth about virality is this: timing or not, scamming or not, we all have our digital footprints, and they are for sale. As Butler said, we don’t trust their senses above what we read online, and the vapid will continue to go viral, our clicks will continue to make millionaires, and we will continue to be resentful.